It seems like a weekly occurrence – bold headlines splayed across the pages of
newspapers: “Haredi man arrested for sexually abusing daughter”; “Haredi bus
driver molested children for 6 years”; “Haredi community attempted to cover up
Despite the prevalence of these stories, Rabbi Avinoam
Cohen, the director of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry’s
Torah-Observant Prisoner Rehabilitation Program, believes the haredi community
is doing a better job of dealing with the issue of pedophilia.
they’re starting to understand, there’s a type of movement,” said Cohen, who
deals with around 60 ultra- Orthodox prisoners at a time who have agreed to go
through a personalized rehabilitation process. “It’s not like it was five or
eight years ago. They’re not going to leave their children with someone
like this [who is known to have a problem], or they will go to the
While the more extreme sects, including Toldot Aharon or Natorei
Karta, refuse to deal with police or any secular authorities, awareness of the
issue and the proper response is getting better among mainstream haredim, said
Cohen in a recent interview.
“The victims [of sexual abuse] caused this
movement,” he said. “They feel it in their bones that it’s getting better. The
awareness has increased because of the publicity about the incidents, and the
children who are failing out of school and no one understands why.”
works to implement successful rehabilitation programs for pedophiles to ensure
they don’t re-offend, a difficult struggle given the large numbers of
unsupervised children in haredi neighborhoods.
T., 38, says he sexually
abused over 20 children in Jerusalem during a six-year period. T., who has mild
developmental disabilities, tried to tell his family what was going on, but they
dismissed it as “total fantasy.” It was the same response they gave him when, as
a nine-year-old boy, he told them that an older man from another haredi sect had
tried to rape him on the way to an evening study session.
said it’s my imagination. They never believed me at home. I had no one to talk
to,” he said during an interview in Cohen’s Jerusalem office.
to Cohen, more than 70 percent of men who sexually abuse children were victims
of sexual assault themselves.
The haredi community’s refusal to deal with
the problem in the past has created generations of victims.
T. said he
had been confused after the attack, and had no guidance.
“If an older
person is allowed to do this to me, then maybe I can do this to others,” he
“I didn’t know if it was forbidden or not. But someone did it to
me, so I thought I could do it to someone else.”
Cohen, who was raised
secular but has been haredi for over 20 years, explained that some haredi
parents are so overwhelmed by the number of children they have that they can’t
adequately deal with the needs of each one, especially if one requires special
assistance following abuse.
Additionally the fact that a child has been
sexually abused can sometimes harm the matchmaking chances of other
“People say, ‘Maybe the family isn’t modest, and this kid was
doing something immodest, and that’s why this child was abused,’” Cohen
But a trusted adult or parent ignoring a child who says they
were sexually abused, or, as in T.’s case, trying to convince him it didn’t
happen, “is worse than the original abuse,” the rabbi continued.
attitude, at least among the less extremist haredi communities, is changing.
Cohen spares no words in his anger over rabbis who allow known sex offenders to
move to another community, rather than deal with police.
“They need to
put rabbis who don’t go to police in prison,” he said. “I can think of at least
20 religious commandments that they’re breaking.”
challenge is dealing with convicted offenders who have served jail time and then
return to the community. Even if they don’t return to their own community, they
will still likely be in a neighborhood with many children.
“Now I’ve been
out [of prison] for a year, and I have supervision,” said Y., 43, who was
convicted for abusing two girls over a number of months.
“Every day the
struggle is renewed. Especially in the haredi areas, there’s small girls and
teenage girls everywhere. You can’t get away from this. And you
need to know how to be a human being and walk among the community,” he
“Sometimes I have no control over it – I’m going through an
alleyway and suddenly a bus lets off, like, 100 girls,” he continued. “Every day
is a test. Every hour of the morning and night. I have to deal with this all the
Cohen explained that this was the part where a religious
upbringing could actually assist offenders in their rehabilitation.
halfway houses and private or group therapy, convicted sex offenders learn both
tools to overcome their inclinations, and religious texts that promote the ideas
of inner strength, not harming others, willpower and asking for forgiveness.
Often, the former prisoners are able to relate strongly to the idea of text
study, something with which they grew up, and find it the most influential part
of their therapy.
Y., who lost custody of his five children after he was
convicted, said that haredim also strongly subscribe to the idea of teshuva, or
repentance and subsequent forgiveness.
“There’s compassion in our
community, even for people who did things in the past,” he said.
prisoners receive rehabilitation. Prison rabbis must recommend a prisoner as a
good candidate for rehabilitation in the last third of their prison sentence.
Cohen, along with another three staff members, is responsible for coordinating a
personalized program for each prisoner, which can include stays in halfway
houses, therapy or drugs – including monthly injections known as chemical
castration, which work to remove any sexual inclinations. Most sexual offenders
have regular supervision for a year, but afterward have no
Also, a limited budget from the Welfare and Social Services
Ministry means that Cohen only has enough staff to deal with around 60 prisoners
or ex-prisoners at a time – a small percentage of the number of people who could
use the services.
Jerusalem police don’t keep statistics about haredi sex
offenders versus non-haredi sex offenders. But in 2012, there were 823
complaints of sexual abuse across the capital – a 23.6% increase from 666
incidents in 2011. Part of the dramatic increase could be due to more people
reporting incidents to the police that they would previously have hidden within
their communities, though it is difficult to tell.
“There is an
improvement with the reactions to the incidents,” said Cohen.
saying, ‘We won’t allow this here.’ It’s the start. We’re still far from
breaking the cycle, but we’re starting to break it.”